Season 02, Episode 03

S.02 / E.03

Katie Silvers Director of Design and UX at Salesforce

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Katie Silvers is the Director of Design and UX at Salesforce and is an expert in aligning business needs and communication with core leadership. Before joining Salesforce, Katie was a manager of Corporate Strategy and Innovation at the Arielle X Group and LexisNexis. She specializes in Design Thinking tools and Agile methodologies and believes product and process innovation is an indispensable element in business growth. Katie leads an international design and research team responsible for creating productivity and efficiency tools for the internal sales organization.

This week on the Optimistic Design podcast, Katie joins us to give her perspective on the role of design lead innovation in technology as an industry as a whole. She shares the non-tradition route she took into the design world and how her current role at Salesforce works to drive collaboration between designers and developers. We also dig into Katie’s actionable advice for other leaders scaling design and innovation teams in large organizations, particularly in today’s economic climate.

 
I'm optimistic about the fact that people are taking design seriously. People always knew it was part of the process but never saw it as a key piece.
Katie Silvers : Director of Design and UX / Salesforce

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Transcript

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Hello and welcome to Optimistic Design, a podcast where we take a practical positive look at the future of design, ethical innovation, and technology. I'm your host, Wilma Lam, Strategy Director here at Substantial.

Today I'm excited to be chatting with Katie Silvers, Director of Incubation and Design at Salesforce, the world's number one customer relationship management platform. In her role, Katie leads an international design and research team responsible for creating productivity and efficiency tools for the internal sales organization. Prior to Salesforce, Katie was a manager of Corporate Strategy and Innovation at the Arielle X Group and LexisNexis.

Hi, Katie, and welcome to Optimistic Design. I'm so excited to catch up with you today.

Katie Silvers:

Hi, Wilma. Thanks so much for having me. I'm really excited to be a part of this.

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. It's always great when we get to talk shop. I mean, one of the things that I think is so interesting since I've known you is that you had a very interesting path into the world of design and innovation. Could you share a little bit about how you got started in this field?


Katie Silvers:

Yeah, I'd love to. I definitely had a non-traditional design background. I actually started as a lawyer. I went to law school. I became a lawyer. I actually practiced law for a couple of years in New York City. And then, much to my parent's dismay, I decided that it wasn't for me and I wanted to do something else.

I went to a company called LexisNexis, who was selling legal software. So, it was just kind of a natural fit to have one foot in the law and one foot in this product world. I did sales. And being in sales, I realized that product wasn't actually designed in the way that lawyers work. I was good at showing it because I understood, and I had empathy for what they were doing because I just came from that world, but it just wasn't designed well to suit their needs.

So, I pivoted from that role into the customer discovery and innovation role at LexisNexis, helping the product teams to interview attorneys, to interview our customers to figure out what are the things that they want in the way that they work and how do we create new products and services to support them. That was amazing.

And then, it was time for another job. And so, I actually moved to RELX, the parent company of LexisNexis. So different company, but in the same kind of family, doing corporate innovation, so kind of teaching the things that I learned in that customer discovery group to our subsidiary companies, also expanding my toolkit, doing lots of facilitation, and design thinking and all kinds of workshops around the world, which was amazing role.

And then I made the jump over to Salesforce about four years ago and has been kind of floating around Salesforce for a bit and trying different things. So, definitely a far cry from being a lawyer, but an amazing path. I don't regret my choice to go to law school because I don't think I would have landed here had I not taken all these steps.

"Definitely a far cry from being a lawyer, but an amazing path. I don't regret my choice to go to law school because I don't think I would have landed here had I not taken all these steps."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

It sounds like there are a couple of shifts in your career over time. So, I'm curious. When you were first moving into that sales role and then later in that first innovation role, what influenced how you approach design and innovation? How did you learn it?


Katie Silvers:

Such a good question. I think so much is about standing in your customer's shoes. Empathy really existed for me because I was the customer. Right? I'd gone from being the customer to being the salesperson. And so, I had this natural empathy to say, "Oh, is this frustrating you? Because it totally frustrated me when I was in your shoes." "Are you having the same issues? How are you working?" "What are the things that aren't working for you? Let me show you what our tool can do to solve some of those problems."

"Empathy really existed for me because I was the customer. I'd gone from being the customer to being the salesperson. And so, I had this natural empathy."

And then, when I realized that the tool wasn't really designed for that, I started thinking about, "Well, how do we make it better?" I started reading up on research and innovation and how those things go together, and how you really need to be speaking to your customers while you design new products. So, I looked around the company, and I networked, and I found this other group that I could join and be a part of and do that for a while.

Each step was really just expanding my mind and learning a bit more about what research and design have to do with the customer experience and how we can make that better. We shouldn't just be designing products because we think it's a good idea without actually talking to the people that are going to use it.

"We shouldn't just be designing products because we think it's a good idea without actually talking to the people that are going to use it."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense. And then, you mentioned four years ago you joined Salesforce. I'm interested in understanding why Salesforce?


Katie Silvers:

Also a good question. I think it's kind of right-place-right-time. Salesforce is an amazing company, and I knew a little bit about them and the values that they live, which is this 111 model, where they give 1% of people's time, 1% of profit, and 1% of product back into the community. I really loved that.

Also, it was just growing exponentially doing really cool, innovative work. But really, it was because I knew someone there. As things kind of happen, I think we met at South by Southwest. I met a friend there. He was at a different company at the time. We stayed in touch. We networked. Similar to our relationship, Wilma. You keep those people close to you.

He was at Salesforce, and he heard of a new team that was being built and thought I'd be a good fit and introduced me to the manager of that team. We really hit it off. One thing led to another. I don't know if I would have sought out Salesforce without knowing someone there, but it all just worked out.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

In the last four years, you've had a couple of different experiences and roles within Salesforce. All focused largely around innovation. Could you talk a little bit about those roles and also what you think characterizes Salesforce's approach to design-led innovation?


Katie Silvers:

Yeah, absolutely. When I started at Salesforce, I was in a customer-facing role in our customer success group. So, really kind of traditional consulting. I was in with customers helping them to build out innovation and experimentation functions. That role really turned into a change management role, which was not something I was super excited about, in all honesty, but it made me learn a lot about change management and how you need change management in order to instill innovation into a company because they go hand in hand, and you've got to bring people along for the ride.

So, I did that for my first year plus at Salesforce. And within that group, they were building an incubation function of how do we incubate new ideas for our customer success group of new products that we could sell into customers to solve some business needs that they are having. So, I joined that group. And that group kind of evolved into more of a research group going to our conferences, interviewing our customers. Understanding—why are you here? What are the things that you want to see? How can we better help you implement Salesforce and change the way that you work?

I think all of those roles, the one thing they really had in common is, how do we put the customer at the center of what we're doing and make sure that we're not creating products and services just around CRM, and really thinking about what is their operating model as a whole? What are the things that are important to them? What are the things that are important to their customers? And how do we create services that better support them?

That was really fun and really interesting. I wanted to change, and I wanted to move. So, I was in the US. I met my current boss doing some networking within the business. I moved over to the UK and started working internally, doing a lot of the same things. So, creating programs internally to incubate with our sales teams to figure out—what are the things that they need to be more successful? What can we implement that changes the way that they work in a way that complements it and creates productivity?

In all of those roles, the thing that they have in common is that customer is at the center. Right? Whether it's an internal customer or an external customer, they're always top of mind. We're always trying to understand what problems they're having and how do we help them to solve them.

"In all of those roles, the thing that they have in common is that customer is at the center. Right? Whether it's an internal customer or an external customer, they're always top of mind. We're always trying to understand what problems they're having and how do we help them to solve them."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's really helpful. You talked a little bit about the mission of your team, like creating tools for the sales group. Could you talk a little bit more about just how your team was put together and who's part of your team?


Katie Silvers:

Sure. My team has evolved a lot. I've been on this team for about two years now. It's really evolved from what was an international Centre of Excellence, so supporting Europe and the Asia Pacific, supporting those teams, those sales teams, to create better productivity tools within them. So, we were a small kind of scrappy team. We've now become global.

My team really consists of design and research. We've got three designers, two researchers, and what we do is really about crowdsourcing new ideas and building them as well as supporting current products and making sure that we're doing things like design sprints or workshops or redesigns but with research and our customer in mind. Are we going in the right direction? Should this next release go out the way that we had planned, or have working habits changed? And so, my team is really there to support everything that we've built, but then everything that we're currently supporting as well.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

One of the things I thought was interesting when we are kind of catching up on your team is that it is formally called an Incubation and Design team. So, I was wondering, from your point of view, what is the relationship between incubation and design?


Katie Silvers:

I love this question because I think there is no incubation without design. Right? So much of what we're doing needs to be consistently designed and tested. And a continuous loop of that.

So, as we get new ideas coming in, we have to think about who's going to use this. Is this an idea that people are passionate about? Why are they passionate about it?

As we start testing and interviewing people to find out, how do you work? Is this something you would use? We then design a prototype. We then check-in and see how you would use this. Does this work with your workflow? And then, we go back, and we iterate, and then we test again, and we iterate some more. So, I think you can actually incubate if you're not designing and testing. Design can exist on its own, but I don't think incubation can.

"You can actually incubate if you're not designing and testing. Design can exist on its own, but I don't think incubation can."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. No, that's a really thoughtful answer and helps, I think, just understand how your team is put together and how you think about approaching the work. It would also be really nice just to hear a little bit about some of the projects that your team has led.


Katie Silvers:

Sure. One of my favorite ones was something that we picked up last year. We have an internal crowdsourcing tool where we'll put out a call for new ideas coming from our solution engineering community, which is the sales team that we mainly support. And we had lots of great ideas, but the idea that got upvoted the most was an idea for a discovery app.

When you think about sales teams, they have lots of discovery questions when they go into their customers, but so many of them are working in silos. You've got people that have been here for years. They have their go-to list of questions. If they have to take on a new product or new industry, they'll just build their own library and have that for them.

When you have new people coming on, it's a huge learning curve. Just start figuring out what questions I should be asking? How do I get the most out of my customer interactions? And so, an SC had actually come up with an idea of having an app in Quip, which is a tool that we use, it's very similar to Google Docs, but you can build apps inside of it—so having an app where you could have all the discovery questions there. You can just click on a product, or you can click on the industry, or you click on all kinds of different things to filter down what questions are most important to you and build a document, then go into your customers and ask them this question.

We took his idea. We built a prototype. We started testing. We got such great feedback. We iterated. We tested some more. And we launched it last year. The amazing thing is because last year we were only supporting the international region, we never launched it in America. We never launched it to different sales teams. We just launched it to our group, but word of mouth was so strong for that product. Our biggest user base ended up being in America.

We saw lots of different roles using it. We got lots of feedback from people wanting to contribute their own questions and be a part of it. It's really been a great success. I think it comes from the fact that it was designed by someone who was experiencing the pain. That idea really came from them. We were just like the shepherds of that idea to take it forward to do the right testing to design it in a way that was thoughtful but to always kind of keep the integrity of the original idea.

"I think it comes from the fact that it was designed by someone who was experiencing the pain. That idea really came from them. We were just like the shepherds of that idea to take it forward to do the right testing to design it in a way that was thoughtful but to always kind of keep the integrity of the original idea."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

No, that's a really good example. I think what that brings to mind for me is how closely your team actually works with the sales organization with having this crowdsourcing tool but also being able to continue to test and validate with that team. Can you talk a little bit about what you think is unique about working with an in-house team?


Katie Silvers:

Yeah. I love it. Having been on both sides of it, when you work with customers, you're there. You build out something, and then you kind of leave. Here, you have ongoing relationships. Right? You can't let this team down because they know where to find you. If something isn't working for them, they're going to come. They're going to talk to you. They're going to complain. They're going to give you feedback. And so, you really want to support them in the most meaningful ways possible.

You also get to see long-term success or failure, right? If something isn't working, you get to see that. You can go back in, and you can change it. You can iterate. So, I think it's really fulfilling to stay on long-term with an internal team and to see how your products actually take flight or don't. And if they resonate with different parts of the business or resonate with the part that you intended it, it's always just a really interesting way of just staying close to a project that you don't get when you're externally facing.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That really speaks to how you embed and collaborate with the sales organization who will be like the end-users. I'm also curious. Your team is doing the design, they're doing the prototyping, but I imagine there's also eventually a product team that builds and develops the tools. So, could you also talk about that relationship with how your team partners with development?


Katie Silvers:

Yeah. We're really in a unique situation. Last year, when we were smaller and scrappier, we were asking for resources from sister dev teams to help us build. This year, as we grew, we actually have a dev team that sits under the same leader. My boss is also the dev team leader's boss, which is amazing because we work so closely together. We team consistently. We're on calls every week. We bring in the dev team. If we're doing a design sprint, we make sure we always have at least one dev team member there so that they can be a part of it and feel that they've had that experience from the beginning and they feel bought in.

Because we're sister teams, we have a lot of accountability to each other and a lot of opportunities to bring people in and make them a part of the project as opposed to just a resource that you give some requirements to. So we're learning to lean on them a bit more as a partner, and they're actually learning to lean on us and use design-led approaches in the way that they develop.

"Because we're sister teams, we have a lot of accountability to each other and a lot of opportunities to bring people in and make them a part of the project as opposed to just a resource that you give some requirements to."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's great to hear. I mean, this conversation of how do you drive collaboration between designers and developers in developing new solutions is something we talk a lot about here at Substantial as well because we have a similar sort of dynamic of having both sides in our organization.

So I'm curious since you said this is a kind of newer developer team that you're working with. From the start, as this team was being built, how did you think about driving collaboration between designers and developers?


Katie Silvers:

Such a good question. I think the leader that came over of that pillar, he's been at Salesforce for a really long time. He was really excited, again, about being embedded because he was always out on his own silo doing dev work. And so, for me, it was so important because we were getting that resource within our team, and they were getting a resource from us. Right? We were partners. And so, for me, it was really important that as we built this new team, and as we grew, we were able to just continuously have communication and support.

It also really helps that my boss really gets it. He's the one who built his team and saw the importance of having design development and actually design ops as part of this team as a whole. And so, everything that we do kind of flows through each other. If it starts with design, and goes to dev, and comes back to design, and then eventually becomes mature and goes to our design ops team to really run and go with, we all need to be accountable to each other, and we all need to support each other.

"We're very global. We've got people all over the world working on both dev, design, and design ops. And so, we try to kind of break down barriers and become as close-knit a team as we can."

We're very global. We've got people all over the world working on both dev, design, and design ops. And so, we try to kind of break down barriers and become as close-knit a team as we can. I think all of the leaders in our organization have really tried to kind of drive that home. I see how my team communicates with dev and how they support each other. It's really amazing without myself or the other leader getting involved. We are one team. We collaborate.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's an amazing way to set up a team for success. I think one of the other things I was curious about is Salesforce as a CRM company. So, there's this long history of using data-driven insights and analytics. It might be different than what may be like other in-house teams' experience and other kinds of organizations. So I was curious how that history also influences the approach that you and your team take to your work.


Katie Silvers:

Yeah. I mean, as we mature, it becomes more important to us. So, I think again, last year, when we were small and scrappy, we were thinking about metrics, but we weren't building towards them because we were borrowing resources whenever we could.

Now that we have dev embedded, everything we do is with metrics in mind. So we're constantly thinking about what do we need? What do we need to build in order to measure how people are using this when they're using it? How do we communicate with them in the app? What does that look like?

We also hired on our design ops team a data scientist this year, again, with the importance of measurement and metrics being at the center of what we do and making sure that we're using Salesforce products to get the most data as we can out of our tools.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's great. I mean, you've talked so much about how the team that you're on has grown over the last year, and also the organization has grown. Can you talk a little bit about how Salesforce has evolved as a design and research organization, and what do you think is coming next?


Katie Silvers:

I mean, Salesforce has been doing some really great things over the last couple of years, including having a Chief Design Officer. That's new for us. Having a group that really is focused on design education. Earlier this year, we came out with a UX certification. There are more design certifications coming out as part of the Salesforce design.

Chief Design Officer runs a group called Salesforce Design, where they really bring in all the design groups working across Salesforce to join all hands to collaborate, to share what they're working on, get feedback. I think a lot of companies are thinking this way, but it's really great that Salesforce is at the forefront of it to make the design at the center of what they do, including having those certifications because so much of what Salesforce does is built on the ecosystem.

I don't know if your listeners will be familiar, but the Salesforce certification process actually builds out a whole kind of economy of independent contractors that could go and become administrators at lots of different companies and support. Either go in-house or support companies build their own business off of Salesforce by having lots of certifications and being able to do implementations for our customers. Having design is one of those qualifications, and one of those certs builds out a whole another level of career for people. So, designers can go out and get certified and use that on their resume to get work for Salesforce companies or companies that just need a little bit of extra help. It's amazing that they're thinking in that way and trying to build out careers in that way.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

I think with creating the UX certification, one of the things that were interesting from the outside hearing about it is that Salesforce is also a large international organization. So, there's this question of, "Well, how do you scale something like a UX certification?" How do you think of it being launched globally for the whole company?

Could you also talk about maybe either how you think about design innovation at scale with the organization or maybe just how you've seen that be talked about the organization?


Katie Silvers:

Yeah. That's a good question because I think in perfect honesty, when you're at a big organization, there's always friction because you've got lots of smart people that work at Salesforce and lots of people that have design experience. And so, you've got different pockets spinning up and doing different things.

Last year, I created a design thinking training for our sales organization that is now part of their certification process internally. We found out there were also four other design thinking training being spun up at the same time for different groups. They all basically had very similar content, but you've got a lot of people doing a lot of things. And as the company grows, it gets harder to find out everything that's happening.

So, I think, again, having a Salesforce design function, they're able to kind of pull us together and say, "Hey, we've seen all this work that you guys are doing. Let's work together and make this a consistent experience for everyone, so we're all speaking one language."

I think, internally, that team is really pulling it together. And then again, I think externally, the certifications, pushing that out to our customers, and showing how important that is to us will hopefully kind of scale across all of our customers as well.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

I'm especially curious because, over the last few years, you've been a large part of building your current team and also scaling it up. And it's also been COVID and work from home. A lot has happened. What advice would you give to other leaders growing design and innovation teams in large organizations, especially now with the kind of environment that we're in?


Katie Silvers:

Be curious. Right? See what's out there. I don't think you necessarily have to recreate the wheel. I think there's lots of good work being done all over the place. And so, I'm constantly reading. I'm constantly listening to podcasts like yours, trying to find out what is going on, what's working, and what isn't.

I think pulling together a team that's curious also helps. We have a really diverse team, lots of different experience levels. And so, we're all learning from each other on a regular basis, which is amazing. I think in this virtual world, there are things that I miss, like in-person workshops and getting together and having that sense of community. But I'm just so impressed with my small team and then my bigger team as a whole of how we've been able to create connections in this virtual world and really come together.

I moved over here and started managing this team in February of 2020. So, you can imagine starting a new role managing a new team, and then the pandemic hits, and the world stops. And so, managing a lot of my feelings and then making sure my team was well supported, I think, again, goes back to being curious, making sure you're asking the right questions, you're supporting people in the way that they need to be supported, and you're building out a team based on things that you feel are missing. Right? So, for us, it was researching and making sure that our designers weren't the only ones doing research that we were really building out that capability and making sure that we were embedding that into all the work that we do.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

No, that's a really helpful and thoughtful answer. I think something a lot of leaders are thinking about these days. Not only for this work, but I think more broadly.

I'm also curious. We've talked a lot about your role, your team, and Salesforce. I'm also curious about your perspective of the industry at large. Based on your experience, what do you think the role of design-led innovation should be in technology as an industry?


Katie Silvers:

I mean, I think it needs to be embedded everywhere, right? Whether or not you have a Chief Design Officer, or you just embed your design teams into your product development teams, I think design is so often seen as a service, just like dev actually, as well, where you give somebody a design requirement or something that you want them to create. They do it. You check the box, and then you go on your way.

I think having designers as part of the process and part of the conversation with a seat at the table is extremely important. I think it's making technology better. It's making our customers happier. It's making our developers better because they understand design, and they're part of it. I don't think design or development should ever be a box we check. I think both of those roles need a seat at the product development table. Otherwise, we're missing a check.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, no. I think that's very accurate. I think it's something that our teams experienced quite a bit also, that importance of getting that insight from people that are truly specialists in design, in development, as you're creating a product is so important and can save you a lot of time on the back end feeling, "Did we do the right thing? Did we build it the right way?"

So, this is going to be our last question for today. What is top of mind now as you think about the future of design and innovation? What are you optimistic about?


Katie Silvers:

I think for me, I'm optimistic about the fact that people are taking design seriously. I think it's something that, again, similar to my last answer, that people always knew was part of the process but never was a key piece. I think as companies start thinking about how they build their design function, they're not building them in silos anymore. They're building them as part of bigger product teams, not just marketing but strategy teams. They understand the value of branding and having design resources involved in that and a seat at the strategy table.

"I'm optimistic about the fact that people are taking design seriously. People always knew it was part of the process but never see it as a key piece."

I think designers and researchers bring so much incorporate innovation and corporate strategy that we never thought about before. So, I'm really optimistic that people are starting to recognize that and build out functions accordingly. I think we're just going to see more of that. We're going to see more design-led innovation throughout, not just businesses like Salesforce that are forward-thinking, but I think even banks are starting to think that way or law firms or things that we always think about as they have a certain way of doing business. I think design-led innovation is going to be part of what they do as well.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's something I would love to see also. I think we're both very much looking forward to that. Katie, thank you so much for joining us today. It's always lovely to talk with you.


Katie Silvers:

Thanks for having me, Wilma. This has been great.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

And thank you so much, everyone out there, for listening. To follow along and hear more recent releases, please head to substantial.com/OptimisticDesign. If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe to Optimistic Design, and leave a comment. Join us next time as we continue to take a future focus look at design, ethical innovation, and technology. I'm Wilma Lam, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.


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